The seamless garment of life

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For the last fifteen or so years, groups of St Aloysius' students have been joining a Philippines immersion for three weeks. At the end of that experience — one which both nourishes and tears at the heart — there is a period spent sharing the lives of inmates (and their families) at the national penitentiary in Muntinlupa.

Lethal injection chamber (Supplied)

There they have engaged in conversations, meals, Masses and games with juvenile offenders, medium- and maximum-security prisoners, and those on death row. Included, too, was a visit to the execution compound.

Approaching the walled and caged building where the sentence was carried out, our young fellows have always been struck by something of a paradox proclaimed in two signs at the door: ‘Bureau of Corrections’ alongside ‘Lethal Injection Chamber’. They were quick to seize upon it. ‘How can you correct and rehabilitate a person after you have killed him?’ they would ask.

Prior to the visit, many of our immersionistas begin with a conviction that in certain extreme cases, a death sentence is appropriate. Then we first enter the end room of the complex, the public viewing room where twenty or so ‘guests’ could view an execution. These would include officials, the press and members of the condemned man’s family or even those of the victim’s family. A one-way mirror looks into the injecting room.

We then move to the other end of the building, the cell which the condemned man enters early in the morning of his execution. A tiny window allows limited communication with his family or the chaplain. The room is rubberised and padded in case the man attempts to do himself an injury and thus cheat the state of its proper process. He will order his favourite meal for lunch.

In an adjoining room is a red phone to Malacañang Palace, the residence of the president, in case there is a stay of execution. If not, the prisoner is taken to the execution room and strapped to a table in cruciform-shape. From that cross-like position, he can gaze at a crucifix on the wall. There are layers of religious piety here — unsubtle and sickening attempts at sanctifying the process. The boys gently touch the leather binding straps on the execution table, a curious blend of both reality-check and a reverence.

 

'Walking back to the Jesuit chaplaincy, the boys quietly talked in twos or threes. Subdued. Reflective. It was rare for any of them to believe in the death penalty any more.'

 

Behind another wall are phlebotomists who have intubated the man and are now awaiting a signal to administer a triple mixture of relaxant, then muscle paralyser, then a massive dose of potassium chloride to stop the heart. Initially medical doctors performed this, but the Philippines Medical Association forbade any members to participate. So the deed was passed on to technicians.

In the execution room, the condemned man is allowed final words into a suspended microphone which can be heard in the viewing room. When the clock on the wall hits 3.00pm a signal is given and the drugs are administered. Yes, this is the time that Jesus died. Yet another pathetic attempt to give this whole charade a pious veneer.

Nowhere has it been shown that the death penalty reduces serious crime. Nowhere has it been demonstrated a deterrent effect. The victims are always the poor. The rich are never executed, they have too much power and influence.

The prison chaplain, Monsignor Bobby Olaguer, was present at all of these executions. He accompanied the men in the months leading up to their last day. He befriended them. He stood by them, their eyes gazing into his as they died. He says it is not a painless or clinical procedure. He saw agony each time. Often not a quick death, but painfully botched.

When I asked him once, what was it like, he said, ‘At that moment, I am Christ for this man.’ He did not say such a thing to big note himself. He meant that this is where God was in the blackest moment, standing by a victim in compassion and in solidarity. When all others had deserted the man, or were taken away, he was there. He went on to say it took some weeks to get over the experience, to process the loss, to come to terms with the injustice.

When one president removed capital punishment from the statute books there were about a thousand men still on death row. Theirs remained a living hell. Each month they would have their death sentence postponed for another month and the clock would start ticking again. Would there be another reprieve, or would this be it? But now that trauma is over. The Philippines became the first Asian country to abolish capital punishment.

As usual, as our visit concludes, the caretaker asks us to pray for those executed. We would pray for them and those who still mourn the taking of their lives. We would pray for healing for the victims’ families. We would pray for more countries to strike the death penalty from their law codes.

When we left this building, this house of sorrows, it always seemed fresher, greener, outside. An openness and a felt freedom. Walking back to the Jesuit chaplaincy, the boys quietly talked in twos or threes. Subdued. Reflective. It was rare for any of them to believe in the death penalty any more.

Earlier this month, Pope Francis released his latest encyclical letter, Fratelli Tutti (‘All Brothers’) on fraternity and social relationships. Within the document, he ratifies a change in Church teaching — on the death penalty.

For nearly two millennia, the Church had endorsed the death penalty for serious crimes. Indeed, there were times in its ecclesiastical courts that the Church imposed and carried out executions, particularly of heretics. Thomas Aquinas, arguably one of the Church’s greatest theologians, had justified such actions.

 

'For Francis, the inalienable dignity of the human person must never be eroded. It is a dignity and worth that comes simply from each and every human person being loved by God.'

 

In 2018 Francis made a change in the Catholic Catechism, when he declared the death penalty ‘inadmissible’. He was following upon his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, who in the 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, declared that the occasions which justified capital punishment were ‘very rare, if not practically non-existent’. Both he and Pope Benedict XVI called for its abolition.

Now, in an encyclical — which ranks among the most authoritative and definitive modes of teaching — Pope Francis is unambiguously clear:

‘Today we state clearly that the death penalty is inadmissible and the Church is firmly committed to calling for its abolition worldwide.’

He also went on to condemn life imprisonment, which he labels a ‘secret death penalty’.

Underscoring his position is a call to mercy. In addition, he wants to draw people out of attitudes of revenge. He suggests, ‘Fear and resentment can easily lead to viewing punishment in a vindictive and even cruel way, rather than as part of a process of healing and reintegration into society.’

For Francis, the inalienable dignity of the human person must never be eroded. It is a dignity and worth that comes simply from each and every human person being loved by God.

Francis’ encyclical gives great solace to those who have been advocating such a position for a long time. One such person was the late Eileen Egan, an American Catholic journalist, activist, and pacifist. For a consistent life ethic, she coined the phrase of the ‘Seamless Garment’ approach. It is a scriptural allusion to John 19:23, where the centurions at Calvary cannot divide Jesus’ garment between them because it was seamless, in one piece.

This life ethic was then popularised by the late Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago whose pro-life stand defended the sanctity of life against the whole spectrum of abortion, euthanasia, suicide, war, the death penalty, or any other social issues that can result in the direct/indirect death of human beings.

A seamless stance. A continuum. Something to be shepherded. As Jesus would have it when speaking of himself as a shepherd and gatekeeper (John 10:10): ‘I have come that they may have life — and have it to the full.’

 

 


Fr Ross Jones SJ is the rector at St Aloysius'. This article was originally published in The Gonzagan. 

Main image: Lethal injection chamber (Supplied)

Topic tags: Ross Jones, death penalty, Phillippines, Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti

 

 

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A very moving and sobering article. Thank you Fr Ross


Cara Minns | 01 December 2020  

An excellent article which took me back to harsher, earlier times here in the not-so-long ago. That sort of brutal penal system sucks. Execution is just the last act in a brutal sequence of events. A society which relies on brutality and terror to enforce so-called 'law and order' is not a good one. I look to the system in the Scandinavian countries, such as Denmark, where there is no death penalty and trust and reform are the keynotes.


Edward Fido | 01 December 2020  

The death penalty has to be very strongly grounded in self-defence, or nobody in the democratic electorate of that jurisdiction will be safe from the prospect of finding out, in due course, that having been forgiven ten thousand talents, he or she has turned round to make some miscreant cough up a hundred denarii. At least, the practical popes don’t have their heads in the clouds … or maybe they did.


roy chen yee | 02 December 2020  

Not a particularly inspirational piece of reading and what would expect with a brutal president like Duterte? The red phone is a waste of time. This 1726 poem by Jonathan Swift toasts a charismatic client of the Tyburn tree — who is, alas, completely fictional. Clever Tom Clinch going to be hanged As clever Tom Clinch, while the Rabble was bawling, Rode stately through Holbourn, to die in his Calling; He stopt at the George for a Bottle of Sack, And promis’d to pay for it when he’d come back. His Waistcoat and Stockings, and Breeches were white, His Cap had a new Cherry Ribbon to ty’t. The Maids to the Doors and the Balconies ran, And said, lack-a-day! he’s a proper young Man. But, as from the Windows the Ladies he spy’d, Like a Beau in the Box, he bow’d low on each Side; And when his last Speech the loud Hawkers did cry, He swore from his Cart, it was all a damn’d Lye. The Hangman for Pardon fell down on his Knee; Tom gave him a Kick in the Guts for his Fee. Then said, I must speak to the People a little, But I’ll see you all damn’d before I will whittle. My honest Friend Wild, may he long hold his Place, He lengthen’d my Life with a whole Year of Grace. Take Courage, dear Comrades, and be not afraid, Nor slip this Occasion to follow your Trade. My Conscience is clear, and my Spirits are calm, And thus I go off without Pray’r-Book or Psalm. Then follow the Practice of clever Tom Clinch, Who hung like a Hero, and never would flinch.


Francis Armstrong | 02 December 2020  

Fr Ross Jones's spiritual and practical leadership of his teams of St Aloysius' students ensures real opportunity of the Ignatian integration of faith and social response being achieved in contemporary Australian Jesuit education. Students who undergo experiences such as the ones described in Ross's account and reflect on them with their peers in the context of faith and Catholic social teaching have an invaluable supportive context for reviewing their attitudes to life and arranging their priorities as they pursue their callings and assume responsibilities beyond school.


John RD | 03 December 2020  

In the mid 1980s, my husband and I moved to the North Coast of NSW. While living there we happened to come into contact with the Catholic Worker community in Brisbane. They were the first group I had come across that affirmed the 'seamless garment of life', and actively worked to stop the taking of life at all times of life. Prior to that, to me, people seemed to be anti abortion and pro the death penalty, or pro abortion and anti the death penalty. It gave me cause to think carefully!!


Beth Gibson | 04 December 2020  

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